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Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 9, “Amateur Night”

The show depicts human beings as they are—scatterbrained, selfish, myopic, sometimes viciously cruel.



Amateur Night
Photo: HBO

Sunday’s Deadwood contained a simple exchange between madam-turned-do-gooder Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) and deputy Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) about the new schoolhouse that could be read on multiple levels at once.

On a pure plot level, this particular scene was about Joanie asking for help in locating the man responsible for building the town’s new schoolhouse, a simple wooden structure that just happens to have a tree growing up through its floorboards and out through the its roof. Joanie told Charlie she was acting on behalf of the schoolteacher Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn), the wife of Charlie’s boss, the sheriff (Timothy Olyphant); Martha wanted to be able to tell the kids why their schoolhouse looked the way it did. What would possess a man to build a house around an old tree instead of cutting it down?

Charlie asked Joanie why the teacher felt she needed to track down the architect and find out about the schoolhouse’s past.

“To finish the story,” Joanie replied.

“More than where the man got to once he was through, I think the story was of the tree, and the schoolhouse built around it,” Charlie said.

Then, after Joanie grew uncomfortable and turned away—perhaps realizing that she might never get the answers she wanted—Charlie amended himself. “I guess you’re right, though,” he said. “I guess children are like that, wanting to know all the information. I guess that’s how they are.”

This conversation wasn’t just about a schoolhouse, but about many other things as well.

For one thing, it was about adapting to one’s surroundings rather than destroying and remaking them. Americans are not predisposed to celebrate this principle, and mining boss George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who just hired an army of Pinkerton thugs to break the camp, holds it in contempt. Hearst is a not an adapter, he’s an acquirer; when he wants something, he demands it, and when he’s refused, he tries to grab it, and when it can’t be grabbed, he obliterates it, to send a message: “This is what happens when you refuse me.”

Aside from Hearst’s patronizing but sincere affection for his cook, Aunt Lou (Cleo King)—who lost her son Odell (Omar Gooding) this week under menacing and mysterious circumstances—and his grief over losing his favorite legbreaker in a street fight, he seems incapable of mustering up anything resembling basic empathy or, for that matter, even a sense of comradeship unconnected to the acquisition of gold (or as he puts it, “the color”).

Hearst’s mindset is illustrated by his living quarters, a room on the top floor of the hotel that he forcefully purchased from the town’s appointed mayor, E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson). When Hearst wanted an exit onto the balcony, he bashed a hole in the wall; weeks later, the hole is still there, jagged and crumbling: an open wound.

The hole in the hotel and the tree in the schoolroom gave this episode, titled “Amateur Night,” two powerful images around which the episode organized its narrative and themes. The hole was an abyss, a reminder of Hearst’s emptiness, and the emptiness of anyone who views people as obstacles. The tree, on the other hand, was made to seem sacred, mythic: it was shot from dramatically low angles so that it seemed to be frozen in the act of exploding up through the soil, like the giant vines snaking up toward the clouds in Jack and the Beanstalk. Simply put, the tree was the answer to the hole, a symbol of creation—biblical, scientific, and artistic/literary.

This last aspect was highlighted throughout the season—in Bullock’s eloquent condolence letter to the family of a miner murdered by Hearst’s goons; in the burgeoning integrity of Jeffrey Jones’s newspaperman, A.W. Merrick, who printed Bullock’s letter, and endured a retaliatory beating as a result; and in the person of theatrical impresario Langrishe (Brian Cox), who paid for the construction of that school so he could move into its old headquarters, a converted brothel. Langrishe then borrowed money from banker Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker) to start a permanent theater in Deadwood and inaugurated it with amateur night, encouraging every citizen to take center stage for a moment and reveal unknown talents and hidden sides of themselves.

Langrishe’s motivation isn’t saintly; he knows that a theater’s fortunes rest on the affection of its patrons, and what better way to earn their loyalty than to make them the stars, if only for a night? His introduction to the evening was telling: He invoked the spirit of Shakespeare with a quote from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But this wasn’t an example of series creator David Milch wrapping himself in the bard’s aura, inviting more Deadwood-vs.-Shakespeare talk. It suggested merely that there’s a through-line connecting the highest art (Hamlet, for instance) and lower forms of art and entertainment.

The man who balanced a long board atop his forehead and the man with a sign that read, “Can cry at will” are not the creative equivalent of great actors or playwrights, nor is Milch suggesting they are. But the existence of Shakespeare, the board balancer and the weeper originate in a basic urge to connect with other people, and with society. The man balancing the board on his head distracts people from their troubles, a worthy cause. The crying man—a stand-in for every actor or writer who ever walked the earth—is a more touching figure, however comically portrayed, because he exists to feel on behalf of other people, connecting himself to them, and connecting bystanders to both of them by weeping copiously in public. Bullock’s condolence letter, however measured, performed the same function, and went a step further, stirring citizens who probably never thought of themselves as citizens to realize the extraordinary potential of this muddy little camp, take pride in the part they played there, and support anyone brave enough to stand in the way of Hearst’s thug army.

The show’s obvious affection for creative self-expression, and its deep conviction about the uses to which it should be put, suggest an attitude toward not just the series Deadwood, but toward art and entertainment in general. This season, there have been so many instances where people were entranced, moved, even changed by someone else’s sentiments—written, spoken or performed—that there’s no way an attentive viewer can write off Deadwood as a blood-and-guts spectacle. To watch it is to sense its idealism.

The show depicts human beings as they are—scatterbrained, selfish, myopic, sometimes viciously cruel. But it also suggests what people and their societies can become if they are willing to adapt to their circumstances, join their neighbors in rallying behind constructive values, and reinvent themselves as better people. (When Joanie said it was important to find out how the story ends, she wasn’t just talking about the story of the tree; she was talking about her own story, and the stories of all the extraordinary people she’s met in Deadwood, men and women who are only beginning to recognize their potential to change and grow.)

Art and entertainment enact that evolutionary process though ritualized gestures, words, pictures and music; even when we get lost in the pleasant fiction of the moment, we recognize some aspect of ourselves in the material, rejoice in our sharpened senses and acknowledge the depth of our capacity to feel. Creativity, Deadwood insists, is not just about getting attention and satisfying one’s ego. It’s a means of bridging the distance between lives that seem to have nothing in common, making strangers feel kinship with other strangers, and urging the audience to recognize and appreciate the civilizing urges that make such expression possible.

“Amateur Night” showcased the late stages of that evolutionary arc in scene after scene. You could see it displayed when Bullock publicly arrested a Pinkerton agent for sassing him while he investigated Morgan Earp’s shooting of another Hearst goon; and throughout the episode, the sheriff was so steadfast and coolheaded during what amounted to an invasion that he truly seemed to have become a different person from the man we met in the first few episodes of season one. (Bullock’s leadership was so undeniable that when he ordered the Earp brothers to follow him to the jail, they instantly obeyed, and something in their demeanor suggested they already thought of themselves as his deputies.)

The arc was clear in the scene where Joanie survived a frightening visit from her ex-pimp, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) without losing her cool, or even allowing him through her doorway; and it was verified again later, in the scene where Joanie and her companion, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), walked the camp’s children to their first class in the new school. (Jane crawled out from inside her bottle long enough to act as the kids’ “escort” through the war zone, but she was so wasted she had to hold Joanie’s hand for support.) It was time to take sides, and everyone knew it—even the telegraph operator, Blazanov (Pasha D. Lynchnikoff), who wanted to punch Hearst in the face after delivering his telegram, but settled for refusing his customary tip; and Langrishe, a reflexive Hearst suck-up (what theater owner doesn’t cozy up to the rich?) who let Hearst know that he wasn’t going to put Hearst’s needs over those of his old friend Al—then greeted the arrival of their baked ham by whipping out his very own dagger to cut it with.

For the first time in the series’s run, you could sense nearly every recurring character thinking and acting along the same lines—equating society’s survival with their own, then acting accordingly. Bullock’s letter, Swearengen’s insistence that the letter be published and Merrick’s decision to commit it to print made this sense of collective responsibility—this need to honor something bigger than one person—possible.

With this episode, Deadwood reached its own evolutionary signpost; the camp has become a town, its inhabitants have become a community, and any sacrifice they endure to make this status permanent will have been worth it.

That milestone had a sad undercurrent: There are only three episodes left until the series goes off the air, to return (maybe) as a couple of two-hour HBO movies. Despite Charlie’s halfhearted protestations that only children feel the need to know every detail, Joanie isn’t the only one who wants to know how this story ends. We can only hope, perhaps in vain, that the cable channel’s bosses will forget the behind-the-scenes melodrama that led to the show’s untimely cancellation and give it another full season, if only to witness the final stages in the transformation of onetime villain Al Swearengen, whose final scene was truly poignant.

During the amateur night performance, he hid inside the Gem, drinking, singing to himself. The moment showed that as far as Al has come, he’s not fully civilized yet; if he were, he’d have been outside on the street, letting the whole camp hear what a lovely voice he has.

This article was originally published in the Star-Ledger.

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Review: El Camino, a Breaking Bad Sequel, Is a Man’s Rueful Lament for Past Wrongs

The film mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail.




El Camino
Photo: Ben Rothstein/Netflix

Writer-director Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is driven by a structural perversity. The story—about a man fleeing from the aftermath of the events of the AMC show’s finale—is rife with flashbacks, often resisting to answer the “What happened next?” question that drives most follow-ups. Young meth-cooker Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was last seen at the end of Breaking Bad driving a stolen El Camino into the desert darkness, hysterical after escaping imprisonment and torture at the hands of white supremacists, whom his partner, Walter White, ultimately killed. We last saw Jesse in a sort of propulsive extremis, which one assumes might bleed into a sequel, but Gilligan conjures in El Camino a rueful tone that bears more of a resemblance to the recent seasons of Better Call Saul than to Breaking Bad. Before Jesse can move on to the next stage in his life, he must reckon with the abuse he’s just fled, with the wreck his life has become.

El Camino mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail. Gilligan hasn’t lost his talent for narrative invention, especially for rendering subterranean criminal worlds hidden in plain sight. One of Breaking Bad’s most chillingly casual, self-rationalizing henchman, Todd (Jesse Plemons), returns in flashbacks, and is revealed to have acted as a kind of gaslighting partner to Jesse, offering him breadcrumbs of kindness in order to use him to carry out side errands. In the present, Jesse is on the run, trading the El Camino for a friend’s car, staking out Todd’s now abandoned apartment, which he knows contains a large stash of cash. Jesse has this information because he helped Todd remove the corpse of a housekeeper that the latter killed. Todd views this disposal as just another errand, and Jesse drops the body from several floors up like a bundle of laundry. In an especially macabre flourish, Todd removes his belt from the dead woman’s neck and re-loops it into his pants.

Of all the Breaking Bad characters who briefly return in El Camino, Todd seems to stimulate Gilligan’s imagination most. He suggests a modernization of a Donald Westlake character—a thug who’s selfish and intelligent enough to wall himself off from the implications of his actions. Gilligan goes to town finding various ways to express Todd’s callousness, which Plemons plays with extraordinary understatement. When Jesse finds a gun and briefly toys with escaping from Todd, the latter’s understanding of his own power and entitlement is truly unnerving. Todd says, “I’ll have that gun now, Jesse,” with condescension, and, more audaciously, with something resembling actual pity.

Gilligan’s aesthetic also appears to be influenced by Westlake, as El Camino has a crisp, streamlined, matter-of-fact sense of framing that suggests the pared-down prose of the legendary crime writer, while recalling the confident visual style that Breaking Bad grew into and that Better Call Saul inherited. There’s also a bit of Twin Peaks, and Breaking Bad itself, in Gilligan’s chronological hopscotching, which shifts one’s focus from the plot at large to individual scenes. El Camino is ultimately concerned with a simple narrative thread: Jesse’s attempt to find the money to pay Ed (Robert Forster) to help him disappear into a kind of witness protection program for criminals. Jesse could’ve went with Ed in Breaking Bad and didn’t, and so El Camino often suggests a long act of atoning for one essential failure of self-preservation, as Jesse remembers pivotal details from his past to pry himself free from his current predicament. Forster, in his final role, is a master of the implicitly emotionally charged deadpan that Gilligan’s characters use to protect themselves and to launder atrocity.

Yet Gilligan somewhat outsmarts himself in El Camino. For all the film’s invention, for all its trickiness, it doesn’t really move. Jesse isn’t an interesting enough character to connect the film’s various tangents; he’s certainly not a Walter White or a Saul Goodman, criminals who dare the audience to like them via the visceral nature of their inventiveness and need to succeed and dominate. Audiences who’re “Team Jesse” will probably enjoy El Camino more than those who always found him to be somewhat tedious—a youth-flattering character who’s divorced of complicity from the plot of which he’s a part. Gilligan’s love for Jesse doesn’t do the protagonist any favors either, as El Camino is composed of a series of riffs in which he’s continually upstaged by characters who’re allowed to be true to their maliciousness. Breaking Bad ended with Jesse discovering himself in chaos, El Camino reins him back in.

Cast: Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Bryan Cranston, Jonathan Banks, Krysten Ritter, Todd Bower, Robert Forster, Gloria Sandoval, Tess Harper, Michael Bofshever Network: Netflix

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Review: Watchmen Offers an Intriguing Rebuttal of Its Source Material

The series argues the ways injustice might persist, and in that sense, its alternate history doesn’t look so alien after all.




Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

HBO’s Watchmen isn’t a straightforward adaptation of the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, but rather a present-day sequel where the events of the original took place decades ago. At one point, a newscast briefly shows a naked blue atomic man, Doctor Manhattan, on Mars, and in another, we learn that the Cold War effectively ended when a massive alien squid beamed into the middle of New York City, killing millions while uniting the world against some vague extradimensional presence. For a while, anyway.

In modern-day Tulsa, Oklahoma, a white supremacist group called the Seventh Cavalry has risen, opposing, among other things, the reparations paid to descendants of the people caught in the city’s 1921 race riot (these are called “Redfordations,” after President Robert Redford, who’s been in office for decades since Richard Nixon abolished the two-term limit). Some tensions, the series posits, won’t be quelled by the appearance of some separate, cephalopodic other; the hatred of the human other is still very much alive.

The Watchmen universe’s primary wrinkle, beyond an alternate reality so alternate that Vietnam is part of the United States, is the way costumed heroes figure into the whole thing. The Cavalry wears Rorschach-blot masks patterned after one of the graphic novel’s heroes, a violent right-wing vigilante-slash-detective. The crux of the original mid-1980s Watchmen comic lies in the complicating of the superhero archetype through a whole mess of psychological hang-ups and generally unsavory preoccupations (Rorschach, for one, is never explicitly racist in the original text, though he’s a considerable misogynist). It fixated on the idea that so-called “costumed adventurers” took to the streets to beat people up often for the hell of it, because they had a messiah complex or because their mothers told them to or just because it felt good to draw blood. Facing down oblivion was the thing it finally took to pull their heads out of asses that wore the underpants on the outside.

Yet even after the six episodes made available to critics, it can be a little tough to swallow some aspects of showrunner Damon Lindelof’s brave new Watchmen, where a big dead squid has apparently shifted the present racial paradigm so completely that the Tulsa police force is not just masked, but predominantly black. Police weapons are lodged in remotely unlocked car dashboard holsters, and racists live within a “Nixonville” trailer park as though they’re the new oppressed. The idea of a country that both won the Vietnam War and elected Nixon for five terms going on to accept a masked, armed police force composed mainly of minorities seems, to say the least, optimistic. The pacing doesn’t make things any easier to interpret, as the show spoons out details about its larger world as needed, often after deploying some particularly charged imagery. You’re mostly asked to take it on faith that the writers have thought this stuff through, that later everything will make sense rather than serve as empty provocation.

The ensemble cast is anchored by Regina King as Angela Abar, an ex-cop turned vigilante called Sister Night. Draped in a hooded long coat with face paint sprayed across her eyes, King brims with steely confidence as well as a controlled, driving anger. But it’s difficult to shake a general suspicion of the way the series positions racial pain as a constant instigator, with responses to prejudice seeming to entirely define its people of color; they’re more walking expressions of hurt than well-rounded characters. And though the first six episodes have not yet revealed enough about Vietnamese trillionaire Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), her initial appearances exhibit some typical, worrying signs of paranoia about Eastern invaders.

The series expands the comic in some fascinating ways, weaving a dense, bizarre mythology and a richly conceived world to get swept up in. The pilot episode in particular introduces various complicated ideas, drawing clear lines to fascism in the actions of the police and vigilantes. But the series misses some of the novel’s complexity in its eagerness for loaded imagery—lynchings, riots, police violence—and slowly-unfolding mysteries. These episodes offer little follow through on the initial themes, seemingly content to raise questions and then set them aside while indulging in the excesses of fascism-is-sexy fantasy, with “enhanced interrogations” dispensed upon the deserving while set to a soundtrack of fat synths by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Regardless of whether the series plans to return to consciously critique these ideas, its habit of leaving them to hang in the air is troubling.

As thorny as Watchmen’s handling of politics can be, though, it still offers an intriguing rebuttal of its source material. Even the boundless cynicism of Moore and Gibbons’s comic had its potential rays of light, the idea that prejudice might look small once everyone recognized the futility of crying out to be better dead than Red. HBO’s Watchmen argues the ways injustice might persist, and in that sense, its alternate history doesn’t look so alien after all.

Cast: Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hong Chau, James Wolk, Frances Fisher Network: HBO

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Review: Living with Yourself Is a Lesser Version of What It Could Be

The series is decidedly unambitious and ends before it ever really gets off the ground.




Living with Yourself
Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

You could be a better version of yourself, posits Living with Yourself, if you weren’t so damn tired all the time. In the Netflix series, a strip-mall spa run by—who else?—Mysterious Asians refreshes its clientele by literally and secretly refreshing people’s bodies, copying memories into a freshly cloned body while killing the original with no one being the wiser. It’s not exactly legal or even foolproof, as the original Miles Elliott (Paul Rudd) discovers when he wakes up buried in the woods. Upon returning home to his wife, Kate (Aisling Bea), he finds that his newer self is already there. That’s about as psychologically fraught as Living with Yourself gets, because, despite how much time its eight episodes devote to the bizarre fear of being cuckolded by yourself, the series is decidedly unambitious.

There’s something truly bleak at the heart of Living with Yourself, with its idea that one’s difficulty in functioning in everyday life is simply a sign of wear. Although the cloned Miles (referred to as “New Miles”) remembers everything the Old Miles does, his body is technically experiencing everything for the first time; he hasn’t tired of feeling the wind on his face, and he’s yet to grow accustomed to certain foods. In this way, the series, created and written by Timothy Greenberg, argues that living is so hard precisely because you’ve already lived. Life, here, is a feedback loop you’re caught in all the way to oblivion, unless, that is, illicit Asian cloners and their laxer Eastern standards set your mind free (early episodes never shed this light Orientalism, fumbling a few self-aware jokes in the process). Everyone, including and especially Kate, seems to like New Miles better than the worn-out Old Miles. He even tells stories at parties the way he used to, Kate says, instead of dejectedly drinking booze.

But two variations on Miles hardly disguise how singularly boring the character is, as episodes devote an interminable amount of time to the inner-workings of his advertising job as dull shorthand for contrasting his old and new selves; the clone goes to work while the original goofs off at home. New Miles, naturally, isn’t yet bored out of his skull by pitch meetings and wins acclaim for an ad campaign that Old Miles decries as “sappy.” There’s some jealousy involved, but there’s also the sense that this perspective couldn’t have come from the Old Miles anymore, as his optimism drained out of his ears over the passing decades. He can’t look at life the same way because he’s taken on so much baggage his body will never be rid of.

The show’s structure alternates between the viewpoints of one of the two Mileses on a per-episode basis, doubling back to show what the other one was doing during a prior episode’s events. Though initially intriguing to have these blanks filled in after the fact, this structure is the show’s only real trick; being informed of what each Miles is doing at any given moment feels more repetitive than insightful, particularly with how severely the series neglects the supporting cast. Kate finally gets a POV episode over halfway into the season, while characters like Miles’s sister, Maia (Alia Shawkat), and his work rival, Dan (Desmin Borges), all but vanish once they serve their purpose. Everyone, and Miles in particular, seems too self-absorbed to really ruminate on the existential angst that might otherwise be inherent to the premise. This doesn’t feel like an intentional character trait so much as a lack of imagination.

Netflix’s Russian Doll uses its structural gimmick to explore the philosophical questions of a charismatic protagonist’s existence and situation and how they effect her actions. Living with Yourself feels inert by comparison, raising some fascinating questions about the nature of the self yet failing to give Miles or anyone in his orbit any real dimension or genuinely thoughtful reflection; mostly it fixates on “this situation is weird” and “I don’t want myself to have sex with my wife.” The series doesn’t even go anywhere particularly weird or daring, jamming as it does its most promising ideas—an F.D.A. intervention, the desire of one Miles to kill the other—into the last two episodes. Living with Yourself ends before it ever really gets off the ground. Despite how much potential the series displays for psychological complexity, its approach is otherwise so uninspired that one wonders if it stumbled upon that potential by accident.

Cast: Paul Rudd, Aisling Bea, Desmin Borges, Zoe Chao, Karen Pittman, Alia Shawkat Network: Netflix

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Review: Catherine the Great Is an Alluring, If Shallow, Dip Into Russia’s Golden Age

While the miniseries is mesmerizing to take in, beneath its aesthetic splendor lie vast, unplumbed depths.




Catherine the Great
Photo: Robert Vigalsky/HBO

Color does much of the work in HBO’s Catherine the Great. Set mostly in the luxurious palace of the eponymous Russian empress (Helen Mirren), the miniseries is awash in greens, reds, yellows, and golds. The men on Catherine’s council wear creamy pastel suits, and she gives speeches from a candle-lit balcony overlooking a great hall, surrounded by stained glass and ornate arches. When, in the first of four episodes, she stands on the balcony and declares that “slavery does not have to be a Russian institution,” the sequence’s color palette and blocking define the social order that Catherine leads and aims to upend. Below her, lords dressed in black and white gasp at her intention to abolish serfdom. Behind her stands her court, poised to either die for her or stab her in the back. Nothing exists above her except Christ, painted on a palace wall. Where Christ’s arms are outstretched and welcoming, Catherine places her hands firmly on the podium in front of her, not asking but demanding.

The camera tends to linger on Catherine throughout the series. During a conversation between Catherine and her lady-in-waiting and confidant, Praskovya Bruce (Gina McKee), the frame stays focused on her and leaves Bruce off screen, as though the latter’s sole purpose is to elicit a reaction from the empress. Catherine rules in absence too. Couriers relay letters in wide shots whose stunning landscapes subtly remind us that every piece of this sprawling empire belongs to Catherine. Her most treasured possession is Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), a forthright military leader who becomes her primary lover after her husband, Peter III, is overthrown and made to disappear. Each episode trots out a new young boy toy to please Catherine—relationships here are radically open—but she’s spellbound by Potemkin and he’s enthralled by her. He vows, repeatedly, that all he does is done to honor her.

Political plotlines come and go, with various parties reaching for the throne, including Catherine’s ambitious but incompetent son, Paul (Joseph Quinn); his tutor and Catherine’s advisor, Nikita Ivanovich Panin (Rory Kinnear); and Catherine’s spurned lover, Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), who led the coup that deposed her husband. But Catherine and Potemkin’s combustive romance, depicted in the long-term as the series jumps forward years at a time, is the heart of the matter. Potemkin goes to war for Catherine, fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, and he comes back stormy, with a mustache and an eyepatch. Each military expedition wins more glory for Potemkin and Catherine and puts a greater strain on his psyche and their relationship. Later in life, the couple gets into an especially vicious shouting match, both roaring almost incomprehensibly. The dialogue that penetrates the haze is Potemkin’s. “Might I remind you,” he yells, “I waded through blood for you.”

At one point in the series, a sudden close-up on Catherine’s strained face communicates her intense paranoia, like something from a Smeagol-Gollum back-and-forth in The Lord of the Rings. But after Potemkin secures her affection, the world of Catherine the Great far more frequently reflects his perspective. When he stumbles back into the palace following a night out drinking with the court fool (Clive Russell), the shot is blurry and disorienting. And when fireworks celebrate Potemkin’s military victories, the fanfare eerily resembles combat, a crushing manifestation of the trauma he’s experienced. The fireworks crackling in the sky cause the Winter Palace to appear aflame, their eruption sounding like gunfire.

Potemkin is certainly captivating, but the emphasis on him is awkward. Even Catherine’s intimate discussions with her lady-in-waiting end up highlighting him, with the two women praising his handsomeness or damning his difficulty. Catherine the Great largely leaves the empress in the realm of abstraction; its primary use for her is as a symbol of absolute power. “I am the state,” she tells Potemkin, and though Russia changes—the poor and oppressed begin to mobilize in opposition to their abuse—Catherine does not. She repeatedly speaks of the need for equality but backs down when the backlash from the aristocracy threatens her security. She clings to the throne with relentless fervor. She grows only in age.

Catherine’s lack of change, along with her consistent ability to outmaneuver her political opponents, robs the series of momentum despite the astonishing range of Mirren and Clarke’s performances. No threat to Catherine’s reign is ever serious, no geopolitical conflict ever out of her or Potemkin’s control. Conspiracies and wars serve merely to punctuate the show’s development of the romance at its core. That love story, however, doesn’t evolve much either. The couple clashes and makes up and laughs, and then does so again weeks or months or years later. The relationship provides glimpses into Catherine’s motivations for hoarding power and keeping her family and friends—and Potemkin—at an insurmountable distance, but she’s left unlit beyond it. While Catherine the Great is utterly mesmerizing to take in, beneath its aesthetic splendor lie vast, unplumbed depths.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Rory Kinnear, Gina McKee, Joseph Quinn, Richard Roxburgh, Clive Russell, Andrew Rothney, Thomas Doherty, Camila Borghesani, Georgina Beedle Network: HBO

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The Best Netflix Original Series to Watch Right Now, Ranked

These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality.



The 25 Best Netflix Original Shows
Photo: Netflix
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on February 20, 2019.

Like Google, Netflix has evolved over two decades from a Silicon Valley venture to a legitimate verb in the cultural lexicon. Ten years after expanding from DVD-by-mail to streaming service, and four since debuting its first original series with House of Cards, Netflix all but dominates the online TV landscape. While competitors like Amazon Prime and Hulu certainly vie for our time with their own in-house programs, the sheer inundation of Netflix originals requires its very own examination. The animated seriocomic genius of BoJack Horseman, the tech horrors that Black Mirror situates on the near horizon, and the earnestness and dramatic sprawl of Sense8 are merely a few of the storytelling pleasures available to anyone with a WiFi connection and a (potentially borrowed) Netflix login. These 25 Netflix original shows prove the marathon-watching juggernaut’s equal concern for both quantity and quality. Nathan Frontiero

Santa Clarita Diet

25. Santa Clarita Diet

Zomedies thrive on a delicate alchemy between violence and humor. When the balance is off, the results are smug and self-congratulatory, as in Zomebieland. But in Santa Clarita Diet, creator Victor Fresco and his collaborators exhibit a flair for slapstick violence that’s staged with a surprisingly light and deft touch. The best bits are nearly impossible to rationalize (its punchlines are tossed off with confident casualness), but the series thrives on its refusal to take even its theme of yuppie conformity seriously, recognizing that it’s so obvious as to be inherently self-critical. Chuck Bowen

Marvel's Luke Cage

24. Luke Cage

The way Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero. Chris Cabin

Lady Dynamite

23. Lady Dynamite

Her endearing eagerness to please, extreme social awkwardness, and hopeless inability to camouflage her feelings makes the semi-fictionalized version of her bipolar self that actor-writer-comedian Maria Bamford plays in Lady Dynamite a kind of human emoji factory, her unguarded face expressing a kaleidoscope of comically intense emotions. Her bafflement and improvised solutions to uncomfortable situations make things we have all struggled with, like dating, feel as freshly and insightfully witnessed as her wide-eyed adventures in Hollywood. Though she’s anything but a stone face, Bamford has more than a little Buster Keaton in her, her cosmic befuddlement and heroic efforts to navigate even the simplest situation highlighting the absurdity in just about everything. Elise Nakhnikian

The Crown

22. The Crown

Once again, The Queen‘s Peter Morgan combines extensive research with a highly empathetic understanding of human nature to create a fascinating exploration of the capabilities and limitations of Britain’s monarchy in the 20th century, the enormous personal sacrifices that monarchy required of Elizabeth II, and the strains it exerted on her family. The Crown opens with Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) beloved father, king George (Jared Harris), another reluctant monarch who inherited the role only after his older brother renounced it. It then follows the young queen as, forced to give up her cherished private life after her father’s demise, she grows into the role of queen—and into a form of greatness distinguished by genuine humility and common-sense values. A feminist tale of a patronized, undereducated, and perpetually underestimated young woman who learns to rely on her native intelligence and good sense to help lead a besieged country through perilous times, The Crown makes the case that the best rulers may be those who never wanted the role. Nakhnikian

Seven Seconds

21. Seven Seconds

The dichotomy between Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and Latrice Butler (Regina King) and the police is rooted in privilege, and while Seven Seconds resists a systemic view of Jersey City’s racial landscape, it’s thorough in its outlining of the biases that affect the Butlers’ lives. And none is more insulting than the way Brenton, even in death, is denied the same benefit of the doubt that’s readily afforded to his killer. The series presents a sympathetic likeness of real-world victims of police brutality, but by eschewing a broad view of race relations in our nation, it risks affirming the ubiquitous “few bad apples” apologia that’s often put forward when police wrongdoing comes to light. Ultimately, though, the detailed character portrayals at the heart of Seven Seconds invest us into the Butlers’ search for justice, while poignantly illustrating that in the real world, that justice is rare. Haigis

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Review: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal Is a Stunning Swirl of Violence and Grace

The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape.




Photo: Adult Swim

Genndy Tartakovsky’s work as an animator is most striking for its embrace of silence. Even in the cacophonous realm of children’s cartoons, the Samurai Jack creator favors wordless moments that lean on the flapping of cloth in the wind or the exaggerated sounds of a clenching fist. Adult Swim’s Primal, then, feels like something Tartakovsky has been building to for much of his career, a dialogue-free miniseries following a caveman and his T. rex partner fighting to survive in a violent, unforgiving world. The caveman isn’t even explicitly named as Spear until the end credits of the first episode, and until then you might otherwise mistake the title, “Spear and Fang,” for a description of the violent tools put to use during its half-hour runtime. After all, what need do these characters have of names?

After the death of his family, Spear finds an uneasy companion in Fang, a mother T. rex whose babies he tries and fails to rescue at one point. The pair’s world is faintly fantastical, a pastel-colored landscape of thinly sketched details that recall the work of French artist Moebius, né Jean Giraud. With rocks and trees in hues of pink and orange that appear beneath a setting sun, the environment is as wondrous as it is hellish, a place of silence perpetually threatened to be broken by some predator’s intrusion. The show’s ecosystem swirls together many disparate time periods both real and imagined, presenting cavepeople coexisting with not just dinosaurs but mammoths, monkey-men, and blood-red bat humanoids.

The show’s chunky character designs convey clear emotions, from sorrow to irritation, through body language and wrinkled faces rendered in thick, black lines. Eyes are a repeated motif, whether in Spear and Fang’s extreme close-ups, the glassy and reflective stare of something newly dead, or the slow filling of an eyeball with blood. The series is a tightly wound watch of violence and grace mingled into one: Scenes tend to linger on clean, purposeful movements, such as Spear lunging through brush after a boar. Watching the sheer craft that Tartakovsky brings to Primal often feels like seeing gymnasts navigate some difficult routine with complete ease. The series makes constantly compelling use of space in its images, as creatures and objects lumber in from out of frame or a massive cliff face crowds Spear’s silhouette into the extreme corner. Enormous objects and animals frequently dwarf the protagonists, whose movements are shown in montage and silhouette and contrasts of bright, distinct color.

The show’s violence is a reflection of its characters’ existence, a cycle from which there’s no escape. Children are swallowed whole, prey is devoured on the spot, eyeballs are smashed in by rocks, and dino jaws are smeared in vivid red blood. The carnage can feel a smidge overdone when the series indulges in sporadic but distracting slow motion, yet for the most part, the blood and the gore feel matter of fact. Everything needs to kill and eat to survive, and here the killing and the eating is couched in virtuoso action whose impacts you feel in your bones.

For his part, Spear seems regretful of his part in that violent cycle. Forged in the fire of his prehistoric proving ground, he and Fang are providers who lack anyone to provide for beyond themselves, their families long ago felled by the cold, impartial law of the ancient world. What’s left is only the faint, cross-species understanding of a desire to live on, because living is all that Spear and Fang have. And the story of the caveman and T. rex’s survival, in Tartakovsky’s hands, is totally enthralling, as terrible as it is beautiful.

Cast: Aaron LaPlante Network: Adult Swim

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Review: Modern Love Aims for Universality but Suffers from Tunnel Vision

The show’s fundamental goal isn’t to present love that’s unique to the current moment, but to expose the universality of its stories.




Modern Love
Photo: Christopher Saunders/Amazon Studios

The title of Amazon’s anthology series Modern Love, based on the New York Times column of the same name, is deceptively loaded. What does it mean for love to be “modern”? Does the love need to be enabled by contemporary technology—say, the algorithms of a dating app? Or does it need to reflect shifting social mores, such as increased acceptance of non-heterosexuality? Or does it, simply, need to exist in the present, as humankind writhes in an overheating, anxiety-inducing world?

The emphasis on modernity, though, proves to be a red herring. Modern Love’s fundamental goal isn’t to present love that’s unique to the current moment, but to expose the universality of its stories. That commonality, however, is rather limited, as the show’s eight episodes are almost exclusively concerned with love that’s both romantic and heterosexual. When love between family members and friends enters the equation, it mostly does so in passing.

Modern Love’s strongest episodes feature well-defined, believable characters whose eccentricities generate, rather than preclude, a sense of familiarity. The first episode revolves around a single and individualistic young woman, Maggie (Cristin Milioti), and her fatherly (and paternalistic) Albanian doorman, Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa). The folksy Guzmin understands Maggie’s isolation and serves as a consistent source of care. He’s always asking how she is, and always there when she leaves for the day and when she comes home at night. The harshness of his deadpanned tough love never overpowers the tenderness underlying it. Early on, when a man drops Maggie off at her building following a date, Guzmin tells her, “He will not be calling you.” It’s astonishing, funny, and, somehow, sweet.

The third episode is the show’s most formally inventive: a delightfully over-the-top, absorbingly staged exploration of mental health’s impact on dating that includes musical numbers. Anne Hathaway nails hard-won but fragile toughness as Lexi, a hotshot corporate lawyer who tries to will herself into happiness—or, more accurately, to fight off the depression ambushing her. “Please,” Lexi says into her bathroom mirror as she shakes her head. “Come on. Come on.” Lexi crumbles onto the floor, crushed by the weight of the effort.

After episode three, however, Modern Love enters a disappointing lull. In the fourth episode, Tina Fey and John Slattery are given far too little to work with as a jaded couple in therapy. The episode fails to probe the characters’ inner lives, resulting in two cardboard cutouts of almost-divorcees, and Fey doesn’t quite demonstrate the range required to execute her character’s emotional climaxes. Another episode, about a date that ends with a trip to the hospital, undercuts its depiction of millennial courtship with contrived dialogue. “I’ve been liveblogging it on social media,” Yasmine (Sofia Boutella) says about the evening, and later, when Rob (John Gallagher Jr.), her date, references going “full incel,” the phrase feels jarringly buzzy, as if the writers are trying to insist on the cultural relevance of the episode.

Modern Love returns to more organic, believable characters with an episode centered on a gay couple’s child adoption, in which Andrew Scott manages to inject his uptight and frustrating character with surprising winsomeness. It’s followed by an exceedingly poignant finale about a relationship between two older runners, Margot (Jane Alexander) and Kenji (James Saito). The first half of the latter episode uses brief flashbacks to deftly and devastatingly chronicle the joys of love found late in life and the pain that’s all but built into it. But, unfortunately, it abandons subtext by heavy-handedly linking the anthology’s various elements; the audience gets additional glimpses of each episode’s protagonists and sees the ultra-tangential connections between them, like this were some fantasy series intent on quelling any doubts we may have about whether or not these people all inhabit the same world. The last act is a needless cherry on top that only narrowly avoids cheapening what precedes it.

Cast: Cristin Milioti, Laurentiu Possa, Catherine Keener, Dev Patel, Caitlin McGee, Andy Garcia, Anne Hathaway, Gary Carr, Tina Fey, John Slattery, Sarita Choudhury, Sofia Boutella, John Gallagher Jr., Julia Garner, Shea Whigham, Myha'la Herrold, Olivia Cooke, Andrew Scott, Brandon Kyle Goodman, Jane Alexander, James Saito Network: Amazon Prime

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Review: Season Three of Big Mouth Proves That, No, P.C. Culture Hasn’t Killed Comedy

The series never shies away from the pleasures and perversities of incipient sexuality.




Big Mouth
Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s Big Mouth is continued evidence against the dubious argument that P.C. culture has made it impossible for comedians to be edgy. As a subject for an animated sitcom, the sex lives of 13-year-olds constitutes an ethical, political, and cultural minefield—one that the graphic and logorrheic Big Mouth gives the impression of approaching blindfolded and in a headlong rush. But there’s a method to its mania: Even while firing an entire volley of cum jokes at viewers every few seconds, the new season covers topics like female masturbation, slut shaming, incel masculinity, biphobia, social media addiction, and the gay teen experience with a heartening frankness that belies its apparent irreverence.

The sixth episode of season three, “How to Have an Orgasm,” not only sees the return of Jessi’s (Jessi Klein) personified vagina (Kristin Wiig), who coaches the teenage girl through the proper digital masturbation procedure, but also features a B plot in which the show’s perpetually horny geek, Andrew (John Mulaney), struggles to take the perfect dick pic to send to his cousin Cherry. Big Mouth never shies away from the pleasures and perversities of incipient sexuality, but perhaps most remarkable about the episode is how it handles young women’s bodies and desire: Deploying a surprise image of a dick for laughs is hardly a new trick for popular adult-oriented comedy, but the series breaks new ground in its willingness to base jokes around a girl’s talking, occasionally clapping vagina. Use your imagination.

It should be observed that one of the reasons that Big Mouth is able to pull off such an explicit depiction of young teens and their bodies is because its characters aren’t meant to necessarily be taken as seventh graders. They’re unmistakably voiced by adults, and are never quite as childlike as real middle-schoolers can be. Nick (Nick Kroll) may be at seventh-grade emotional maturity levels, wavering between intense sexual insecurity and grandiose masculinist narcissism, but he also possesses a biting humor and sophisticated understanding of the world around him. These children are adult-child hybrids, caricatures drawn up by adult comedians projecting themselves backward into the awkwardness of teenagedom, which makes the show’s frank depiction of underage sexuality a bit less distressing than it could be.

It’s also to the show’s advantage that, no matter how funny such gags can be, there’s nothing prurient about Big Mouth’s depiction of, say, Jessi’s garrulous vagina, or Missy’s (Jenny Slate) recurring sexual fantasy involving a space ship, Nathan Fillion (voiced by the actor himself), and a sexy horse named Gustavo. And one of season three’s best ideas is the formation of an unlikely bond between über-nerd Missy and unreformed slob Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), after Jay incidentally discovers Missy’s erotic fan fiction and the polymorphously perverse pair begin collaborating on the story of Fillion’s equine love affair.

Jay gets some of the best material in the new season in general, with the series jettisoning the “Jay fucks pillows” joke that had long worn thin by the second season’s conclusion, and leaning into more grounded aspects of the character: his squalid and unnourishing home life, his hyperactivity, and his love of magic. A fictional Netflix series—what else?—about a bisexual Canadian magician named Gordy (Martin Short) helps Jay cope with his bisexuality in episode three, “Cellsea,” though when he comes out later, he finds that his classmates are hesitant to accept bi men, even as they go crazy over Ally (Ally Wong), a new girl in school who professes her pansexuality in episode eight, “Rankings.”

As much as “Cellsea” opens up some of the most fruitful through lines in the season, it also exhibits some of its recurrent weaknesses. Gordy may be amusing, but Big Mouth’s incessant self-reflexive jokes about streaming (the season is dotted with winking praise for Netflix, digs about fellow controversial teens show 13 Reasons Why, and forced HBO Now disses) get a bit tiresome over the course of 11 episodes. Gordy’s late-episode song about the spectrum of human sexuality also points toward the show’s tendency to use musical numbers as a crutch—nowhere more on display than the low-hanging-fruit Florida jokes in the hair-metal song performed by Murray the Hormone Monster (also voiced by Kroll) in episode five, “Florida.”

That said, it’s the musical numbers that make the season’s penultimate episode (“Disclosure the Movie: The Musical!”), in which toxic male teacher Mr. Lizer (Rob Huebel) stages a musical version of the 1994 film Disclosure, such a highlight. The uncomfortable songs about reverse sexual harassment are more thoroughly integrated into the episode’s plot than the season’s previous musical sequences and resonate more with the episode’s themes. Missy finds in the play’s racy (and woefully sexist) material inspiration for a new sexual assertiveness, while Nick’s confidence boost from being cast as “the Michael Douglas character” develops his character’s awkward flirtation with a “big dick energy” performance of masculinity. The teenagers’ negotiation with the distorted representations of wrong-minded pop culture to formulate their own sexual identity rings almost painfully true. “Disclosure the Movie: The Musical!” proves that Big Mouth is at its best when its mile-a-minute humor supports, rather than distracts from, its open exploration of the convulsions of early-teen sexuality.

Cast: Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Jenny Slate, Maya Rudolph, Jordan Peele, Fred Armisen, Andrew Rannells, Jessica Chaffin, Ally Wong, Gina Rodriguez, Joe Wengert, Richard Kind, Paula Pell, Chelsea Peretti, Nathan Fillion, Kristen Wiig, Rob Huebel Network: Netflix

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Review: The Politician Balances Well-Honed Satire and Melodramatic Frenzy

The series nearly approaches farce as its shocking developments pile up, defying reality and credulity.



The Politician
Photo: Netflix

Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), the uncannily poised future politico at the center of Netflix’s The Politician, carries himself with the unsettling polish of a young beauty pageant contestant or an overly coached child actor. Platt portrays the high school senior, who’s in the midst of a hotly contested campaign for class president, with a cold remove informed by the character’s unfettered ambition: Payton views the race as his first in a lifelong campaign for the presidency of the United States. And while the series—co-created by Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk—thoughtfully examines the relationship between Payton’s ruthless drive and his own mental health, its most timely and resonant insights derive from its satirical appraisal of the kabuki histrionics of real-world political theater.

By Payton’s own admission, he’s been campaigning toward the White House for his entire life. His lofty aspirations and carefully curated persona suggest a scarcity of authenticity in real-world politics, and by framing Payton as an obviously desirable candidate, the series emphasizes that such scarcity is pervasive even among politicians with thoughtful policies and unmistakable sincerity. The Politician derives provocation from its differing portrayal of its main character’s potential to govern and the questionable lengths he goes to for the chance to do so—such as burying a scandal to protect his running mate, or coldly dismissing his campaign advisors, who are his childhood friends, when he no longer needs them.

Little about Payton’s physical world is meant to echo the reality of daily life. Instead, the show’s primary location, Santa Barbara, is a reflection of his privilege, a world that seems to expand to fit his needs. A crucial scene that unfolds in the high school’s cavernous chapel finds Payton’s running mate, Infinity (Zoey Deutch), surprised to discover that the school even has a chapel. Likewise, the Hobarts’ estate grows from scene to scene, as horse stables, lush living areas, and new corners of the manicured grounds are continuously revealed. Part real-estate porn and part lurid portrayal of privilege, the show’s Technicolor universe lends an ostensibly mundane high school election an air of high-stakes gamesmanship. Strategy meetings and clandestine conversations unfold in exquisite mansions with breathtaking vistas, while Payton races around town in a creamy-white Alfa Romeo speedster. The Politician convincingly implies an inherent correlation between a person’s class and their perceived importance.

Memorable performances abound, from Gwyneth Paltrow as Georgina, Payton’s rich but joyless mother, to Jessica Lange as Dusty, Infinity’s manipulative grandmother. The series derives the majority of its success, though, from Platt, who commits convincingly to Payton’s elevated self-image. When scandal threatens Payton’s campaign, the veteran theater actor appears fully unhinged, all bulging neck veins and watery eyes; conversely, he can be placid and smooth when Payton is manipulating his opponents or courting voters.

When the series attempts to underscore the roots of his political appeal, Platt leverages his talent for penetrating emotional communication. Payton, a kind of stage performer himself, always plays to the back row, as in a stirring speech about gun control or when, at a school assembly, he dedicates a Joni Mitchell song to a recently deceased student. In such instances, The Politician prompts us to interrogate our own reaction to Payton’s charisma, and consider the possibility that we’re being duped—a dynamic made possible by Platt’s performance.

The actor’s portrayal of the strangely polished Payton is backgrounded by constant, near-hysterical drama. Throughout the season’s eight episodes, there’s one suicide, another unrelated suicide attempt, three attempted murders, one kidnapping (which the series frames as a wry parody of David Fincher’s Gone Girl), and a host of political scandals that range from falsified illnesses to teenage love triangles. And much of this subject matter, especially when related to teenage depression or mental illness, is gravely paralleled in the real world.

But as The Politician bounds along, it rarely focuses squarely on the fallout of those issues, or on the source of Payton’s own ambition. Such plot developments serve instead to reinforce the stakes of Payton’s campaign for class president as he views them: life or death. The series is similarly matter-of-fact when dealing with the sexuality of its characters, many of whom, including Payton, are sexually fluid—a fact that The Politician acknowledges without comment. The sexual entanglements and desires of its teen characters provide dramatic incitement rather than emotional heft, in the same way that the show’s suicides and kidnappings are deployed primarily as obstacles to Payton’s political ascension. The series nearly approaches farce as the shocking developments pile up, defying reality and credulity. Still, each of The Politician’s strange twists and turns feel like appropriate obstacles for its larger-than-life protagonist. Payton insists that he’s destined to wield power over his surroundings, so it’s fitting that those surroundings are somewhat preposterous.

The Politician balances well-honed satire and melodramatic frenzy, succeeding in its aim to engender both a critical appraisal of real-world politics and grotesque car-crash voyeurism. Both of the show’s competing sensibilities flow from Platt’s captivating performance, and one’s enjoyment of the series will largely depend on one’s take on Payton. While the young man is of plainly dubious moral character, the series resists condemning his actions. Instead, it offers a view of the candidate as a force of nature, struggling within a hypothetical vision of pure politics with the volume dialed up. The show’s high school election functions as a petri dish for the most debased, selfish elements of American politics, and implicates the audience as primitive rubberneckers for investing in its outcome. The Politician’s most trenchant critique, though, is reserved for Payton, who’s obsessed with lording over a broken system, yet doesn’t even possess the self-awareness to understand why.

Cast: Ben Platt, Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Laura Dreyfuss, Rahne Jones, David Corenswet, Theo Germaine, Benjamin Barrett, Dylan McDermott, Julia Schlaepfer, January Jones, Trevor Eason, Trey Eason Network: Netflix

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Review: Bless the Harts’s First Episode Is a Madcap, If Uneven, Introduction

You can feel Fox’s new animated series figuring itself out in its first episode.




Bless the Harts
Photo: Fox

Fox’s new animated series, Bless the Harts, begins with a mailwoman delivering a bill and some bad news to Jenny Hart (Kristen Wiig), a waitress living in North Carolina: that her water will be shut off in three days. “Damn, Norma,” Jenny says, “You’re not supposed to be reading people’s mail.” But, as Norma explains, she didn’t open the envelope. “It’s just that when you’re this late, they put the threats on the outside.”

The scene mainly serves to introduce Jenny’s precarious financial situation, which extends to everyone who lives with her: Betty (Maya Rudolph), her zany mother, who prints out hard copies of memes; Violet (Jillian Bell), her purple-haired and reclusive artist daughter; and Wayne Edwards (Ike Barinholtz), her bumbling but gold-hearted boyfriend. Our introduction to the Harts also places the episode—the only one made available to press ahead of the show’s premiere—in a reality slightly removed from ours. Norma ends the conversation by saying that she has to keep moving, “or the government will zap my collar.” She laughs, then Jenny laughs, and then we hear an off-screen electric shock as Norma walks away. It’s an early indication that there’s something surreal about the Harts’ world. By the time that Jesus (Kumail Nanjiani) himself appears to Jenny, it’s difficult to tell if he’s a figment of her imagination or if he’s really there, speaking with a waitress at a seafood buffet called Last Supper.

The episode mostly stays grounded in realism, though, exploring the relationships between the various Harts. It’s almost a shame that Wiig, Rudolph, and Barinholtz, three actors with superb physical presence, are reduced to their voices. But while Wiig, Barinholtz, and Bell put in straightforward performances, and while their faux-Southern accents render them nearly unrecognizable, Rudolph is as distinctive and riotous as she is in Big Mouth. She stretches Betty to absurd extremes, dotting her lines with perfectly bewildering pronunciations—“scarcity” is “scar-ci-tee”—that come out of nowhere, like quick jabs to the ribs.

You can feel Bless the Harts figuring itself out in its first episode. There are bits that go on for too long; Wayne’s internal monologues, for one, move at too relaxed a pace and result in little comedic payoff. But the episode also features promising signs of the madcap humor that the series will hopefully settle into. The episode’s central plot consists of Betty’s plan, approved by Jenny, to sell a collection of vaguely Teletubby-esque (and highly flammable) “Hug N’ Bugs” dolls that she’s amassed. The dolls are pop culture mash-ups, such as “Tamagotchi O.J. Trial,” which holds a digital pet toy in one hand and wears a bloody glove on the other.

When Jesus tells Jenny that the plan is doomed to fail, he utters the episode’s best piece of dialogue: “People go crazy for fads, and then they move on. I’ve seen them all come and go: leg warmers, pet rocks, flappers. There was this thing called the Bronze Age…” Nanjiani’s characteristic soft-spokenness is a remarkable fit for a lesson that Jesus would casually impart at a seafood buffet. Jesus doesn’t overshadow the show’s namesakes, thanks to Rudolph’s standout performance and flashes of sharp dialogue from the other Harts—but with a Jesus this endearing, Bless the Harts could do worse than giving him the wheel.

Cast: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, Jillian Bell, Kumail Nanjiani Network: Fox

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